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By Debra Weinryb
Chef Vikram Vij started his career with a mission to rewrite the Indian food narrative. Having studied as an Indian chef in Austria, which has a predominantly German cultural makeup, he saw first-hand the way European cuisine was elevated above that of other cultures.
Vikram realized he needed to break social and cultural barriers in order to achieve the same success as his European peers and give Indian cuisine the respect it deserves. He didn’t just want to be a line cook stuck in the kitchen of a small restaurant – his dreams were much, much bigger.
As luck would have it, Vikram ended up serving a gentleman who happened to be the General Manager of the Banff Springs Hotel. After wowing the man with a spicy goulash soup, Vikram was invited to come work in Canada where his restaurateur dreams began.
In the sixth episode of the TouchBistro podcast RestoTalk, ‘The History and Experience of a Reknown Chef’, chef Vikram Vij recounts his lifetime of experience and shares the three philosophies on life, people, and food that changed his career forever:
Read on to dive deeper into each of his philosophies and how they helped him find his way to Canada where Vikram Vij was able to open successful restaurants in Vancouver (including Vij’s and My Shanti. In addition, he built an acting career. Vikram Vij joined Dragon’s Den as a Dragon and became a judge on Food Network’s Top Chef Canada.
After facing racism in Austria and experiencing similar discrimination while working in different parts of Europe, Vikram knew he wanted to make a change. He wanted to be given the same respect for his cuisine as any French chef does or as an Italian chef does. That’s why one of his most practiced restaurant management skills is treating all staff equally.
“I believe that every human is equal and should be respected with the same amount of love and care,” Vikram says. “Gandhi said we are all equal, so having been born and brought up in India, obviously those principles meant a lot to me.”
When he opened his own restaurant, Vikram wanted to make sure that the people that worked in his kitchens were given the same respect as he would expect. “There was no hierarchy in our kitchens. At the end of the day, we all got together and went out for drinks and had fun,” he explains.
28 years later, Vikram continues to lead his business with a democratic mindset. “I think where I am now is because [I follow] the principles of equality and humanity, which are the fundamental aspect of life. And sometimes you lose, and sometimes you win, but it’s okay in the end,” Vikram tells restaurateurs.
In addition to making sure everyone is treated equally in his restaurant, Vikram has also made a commitment to himself to break down stereotypes about Indian food.
“One of the things I promised myself was I was not going to do butter chicken,” Vikram Vij recalls. “I was not going to do chicken tikka masala. I was not going to do what the other restaurants had been doing because Indian food is so vast, so beautiful, so unique, and so different.”
When people would come into Vij’s in Vancouver and ask “Where’s the butter chicken?” Vikram Vij would instead suggest a different dish, like chicken curry. And 99% of the time, people would pay for that curry because they had realized there was love and passion behind it.
By guiding his guests and telling them what to eat and not to eat, Vikram opened their eyes to the limitless possibilities of Indian cuisine. “That meant I needed to be on the floor. It took one individual and one customer at a time to hold their hands and say ‘trust me,’” he recalls.
That bridging of the gap is very important to Vikram. He works hard to make his presence known, present his background, and put himself on the plate every time. It’s about showing pure love for his culture and Indian cuisine. “If I expect you to celebrate me, then I should celebrate with you,” Vikram says.
Vikram has also found success in his career by treating his restaurant like a stage performance. He enjoys telling stories and expressing himself, just as he has done through acting. After all, Vikram Vij was a Dragon on Dragon’s Den, and he was a guest judge on Top Chef.
“[Acting is] my medium for expressing myself,” Vikram says. “Whether you’re waiting in a trailer or you are standing in a kitchen peeling potatoes, it’s the same thing. The end effect is when that person takes a bite of the food and you look at their face and they say, ‘wow this is delicious’ – that’s what you strive to do all day long. You stand there and you’re a stage performer.”
Just like an actor puts on a show, Vikram continues to perform in his daily life as a chef – he lives for applause from any customers who love his food. At the same time, Vikram feels that acting can also make him vulnerable. In addition to applause, he also strives for affirmation. “I would rather someone say something negative than be nonpulsed or neutral, or have no reaction at all. If you don’t like something, tell me right then and there. I will be more than happy to change something about it.”
If you’re trying to figure out how to be a good restaurant manager, Chef Vikram Vij suggests that successful restaurateurs run towards their primary focus or goal in life, instead of fame. It’s only after you have a clear focus that the chances of success increase. For Vikram, it’s his studies, hard work, determination, and the practice of his life philosophies that sent him along the journey to where he is today.
While practicing the values of equality, welcomeness, and togetherness, Vikram continues to share his passion for making good food and raising awareness of Indian cuisine. He sparks creativity wherever he goes and shares his talents with the world.
Debra is the Content Marketing Specialist at TouchBistro, where she writes about the latest food and restaurant industry trends. In her spare time, Debra enjoys baking and eating together with family and friends. Her favorite creations include chocolate cake with Italian meringue buttercream, mile-high lemon meringue pie, and fresh naan with tahini sauce.
By Katherine Pendrill
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